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Letitia L. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 31, 2019

Letitia L.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration



         Dear Counsel:

         On December 27, 2018, Plaintiff Letitia L. petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. ECF 1. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment and Plaintiff's reply. ECF 15, 16, 17. I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). This Court must uphold the decision of the Agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the Agency employed proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny both motions, reverse the Commissioner's decision in part, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. This letter explains my rationale.

         Plaintiff filed her claim for benefits on March 30, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of February 18, 2014. Tr. 170-77. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 104-07, 113-14. A hearing was held on September 11, 2017, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 35-80. Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. Tr. 10-22. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. 1-6, so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of “disorders of the lumbar spine, and arthritis of the bilateral knees.” Tr. 12. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except she requires an option to sit and stand every 30-60 minutes, she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.

         Tr. 17. After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a short order cook, fast food manager, kitchen helper, or cook, but could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 21-22. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 22.

         Plaintiff raises one primary argument on appeal: that the ALJ did not provide an adequate analysis of Listing 1.04A at step three. ECF 14-1 at 10. I agree that the ALJ's step three analysis was inadequate, and that remand is warranted. In remanding for further explanation, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Plaintiff is not entitled to benefits is correct.

         Plaintiff specifically argues that the ALJ's evaluation of Listing 1.04A failed to comply with Fourth Circuit precedent. For support, Plaintiff cites to Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1172-73 (4th Cir. 1986); Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2013); Fox v. Colvin, 632 Fed.Appx. 750 (4th Cir. 2015); and Brown v. Colvin, 639 Fed.Appx. 921 (4th Cir. 2016). ECF 14 at 10-12.

         In Fox v. Colvin, the Fourth Circuit clarified the evidentiary requirements needed to support an ALJ's determination of whether any of a claimant's impairments meets a listing at step three of the sequential evaluation. 632 Fed.Appx. 750 (4th Cir. 2015). To understand why remand is warranted in Plaintiff's case, some background is useful. At step three of the sequential evaluation, an ALJ determines whether a claimant's impairments meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Listings describe each of the major body system impairments that the Agency “consider[s] to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a). Listings 1.00 et. seq. through Listings 11.00, et. seq., Listings 13.00 et. seq., and Listings 14.00 et. seq., pertain to physical impairments. Each physical impairment listing contains a set of signs or objective medical findings that must be present for the claimant's impairment to meet the listing.

In Fox, regarding his findings at step three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ stated:
Although the claimant has ‘severe' impairments, they do not meet the criteria of any listed impairments described in Appendix 1 of the Regulations (20 CFR, Subpart P, Appendix 1). No treating or examining physician has mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairment, nor does the evidence show medical findings that are the same or equivalent to those of any listed impairment of the Listing of Impairments. In reaching this conclusion, the undersigned has considered, in particular, sections 9.00(B)(5) and 11.14.

632 Fed.Appx. at 754-55. The Fourth Circuit held that the ALJ's analysis was deficient because it consisted of conclusory statements and did not include “any ‘specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.'” Id. at 755 (quoting Radford, 734 F.3d at 295). That is, the ALJ did not apply any findings or medical evidence to the disability listing and “offered nothing to reveal why he was making his decision.” Id. (emphasis in original). The Fourth Circuit also rejected the notion that failure to engage in meaningful analysis at step three could constitute harmless error where the evidence of record otherwise demonstrated that the claimant did not meet a listing. Id. Rather, the Fox Court emphasized that it is not the Court's role to “engage[] in an analysis that the ALJ should have done in the first instance, ” or “to speculate as to how the ALJ applied the law to its findings ...

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